Review of the First EyCon Workshop ‘Photosensible’, 9 and 10 June 2022 – by Elise Clerteau (ENS de Lyon).

On 9th and 10th June, the EyCon Project (funded by Labex Passés dans le Présent, and the AHRC), the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac, and the Université de Paris Cité organised a workshop on sensitive photographs and their contemporary recirculations. Held at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac (Paris), several specialists, brought together by the question of the ‘photosensitive’, were able to question collectively the specific problems caused by ‘controversial images’ that hurt, show human suffering or materialise domination, and consider the way historians, archive institutions and museums can approach this unstable material that resonates with the violence of the past. The discussions were articulated around several issues, relating to ‘gaze’; the reproduction/recirculation of the images; the legal delimitations; the difficult conciliation between the occultation of the past and the clash of sensitivities; and to the uses–notably digital uses–of these photographs. At the crossroads of ethics and legality, violence and sensitivity, visibility and invisibility, image and text, the ‘photosensitive’ has aroused artistic and historical reflections, but also philosophical, socio-anthropological and psycho-cognitive considerations to approach certain shocking and violent photos in accordance with the objectives of the EyCon project. Focused on the mass of war images and their treatment before the second half of the 20th century, this project aims at finding the tools to structure this material, make it more accessible, and solve the potential issues in its dissemination.

June 9th (morning)

The first hypotheses were put forward on the morning of June 9, as the representatives of the archives and museums gathered for the occasion, reported:

  • Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac (Paris). Among the 700,000 photographs in the collection inherited by the MQB, many are sensitive and problematic both from an iconographic point of view (nudity, mutilation, torture, skeletons, medical photography, animal sacrifices, etc.) and from a contextual one. There is an existing digital library, but with restricted access — for example, some photographs appear without the image, and one has to request to see it.
  • Établissement de communication et de production audiovisuelle de la Défense/ Audiovisual section of the French Armed Forces (Ivry). The ECPAD holds 15 million photographs and approximately 94,000 hours of film. A set of rules has been established to determine a varying level of confidentiality of the photos according to their violence. Shocking terms or iconographic contents are mentioned as such in an informative and/or preventive note. The institution is also particularly attentive to offended relatives’ requests for the removal of images.
  • Division of Iconographic Archives of the Defence Historical Service (Vincennes). Public and private archives are treated in this military service whose priority is to make all (meta)data accessible to the public despite their explicit violence. However, the collections are not yet available online.
  • La Contemporaine (Paris-Nanterre). A library and ‘museum of contemporary worlds’, La Contemporaine documents the consequences of conflicts on civilians. In the management of its collections, there is a particular emphasis on questions of classification and on the psychological effects of war violence on populations. 
  • Archives nationales d’outre-mer (Aix-en-Provence). 37 kilometres of archives from colonising and colonised sources (1844-1970) are kept at the ANOM. Most of the photographs are accessible online, despite their sensitive nature.
  • Imperial War Museums (UK). Opened in 1917, the three IWMs now detain 33 million items documenting the events of both World Wars. The issues of sensitivity and digital dissemination trigger specific reflections aiming at bridging the gap between academic research and the public’s understanding of conflicts.
  • Search at Wellcome Collection (London). The Wellcome Collection museum’s search engine underwent a major development in 2015, optimising responses to the online audience’s expectations. The access to more than a million images is guaranteed despite gradual restrictions (open / open with advisory /restricted / by appointment / donor permission / temporary unavailable unavailable) depending on the sensitivity of the photographs.
  • Royal Museum for Central Africa (Belgium). Founded in 1960, this museum is an institute for research, valorisation and reinforcement of national capacities in Africa. A development of photographic metadata through digitalization is underway, but still partial.
  • Museum of Photography of Madagascar (Antananarivo, Madagascar). A museum of heritage conservation and education, this institution has received many financial and documentary donations since its creation in 2013. Digital technology has been put at the service of Madagascar’s heritage to give its photographic memory of the colonial period its visibility back. Many official photographs being paradoxically held by families, those shared by locals are often returned to them after having been digitised.

The presentations were structured around information about the different institutions; institutional (re)definitions of what ‘sensitive’ photographs are; policies for their management; the challenges of digital dissemination; online accessibility and its potential restrictions; additional metadata; and the establishment of prior warnings. Despite disparities in terms of the size of photographic collections and the progress of their digitalization, the origin of their sources, and the policies for exhibiting images considered ‘sensitive’, several common difficulties have emerged:

  • Definitory. The iconographic content is not systematically a criterion to define what a ‘sensitive photograph’ is. If nudity, ritual mutilation, corporal punishment, public executions, human remains, diseases and animal sacrifices can be identified as ‘sensitive categories’, it is no less true that the violence of certain photographs is due to their textual content (captions, notices, titles) and/or to their symbolically traumatic resonance in certain communities or cultures. Where an internal committee has been designated at the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac to discuss the problematic nature of certain images, a specific identification procedure was put in place at the IWM, from the acquisition of the photograph to its ‘encounter’ with the public.
  • Artistic and historical. What to show, what to correct? Should the captions appear as they were written? should they be corrected? should they be accompanied by an informative-preventive contextual caption? The choice could potentially obscure part of history. On the ECPAD website, in addition to the ‘sensitive image’ warning displayed on the screen, the captions judged to be shocking are explicitly labelled with their contextual origin, to clarify the distance between what was done at the time and the way it is presented today. Moreover, the cases of requests for the removal of images from relatives resolve an ethical issue, but also raise a historical problem concerning the erasure of evidence of past violence.
  • Legal and juridical. The uneven progress of the digitalization of the collections mentioned is certainly due to budgetary ties (the scale of the Wellcome Collection is largely due to the substantial investments that allowed the processing of 10,000 images per day in 2015 when the project was born), but also to legal constraints. Copyrights, classification issues, the duty to return sources, are factors that can complicate or even restrict the online or onsite exhibition of these images. In the iconographic archives of the Historical Service of Defence, where ‘violence, death and destruction cannot be hidden’ (Benjamin Doizelet), the greatest difficulty encountered by archivists is related to the classification of public archives.
  • Ethics and practices. These photographs raise ethical questions — both because of the sensitive nature of what they show and because of their potential effects on viewers’ sensibilities. This leads to theoretical and practical reflections on the criteria to be determined for their contemporary uses and (re)circulations. Dieter Van Hassel, head of the Archives-Information Department at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, spoke about the challenges of expanding online access to ‘sensitive photographs’: it is not only a question of legal constraints but also of fear of the public’s reactions. At the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac, some photographs are published online but without the image: only the informative note appears, thus testifying to the existence of the image while inviting one to contact the museum to access the image. However, we can assume that this policy of not showing also poses a problem: accessibility becomes a privilege when it implies a specific consultation process that is not within the reach of everyone. Circulation is essential in Madagascar, where the Museum of Photography is conceived as a depository-mediator of images and photographic archives. The digitalization of photographic documents and the creation of a database are similar to a ‘photographic heritage in the making’ (Helihantha Rajaonarison), which could remedy the occultation of the visual memory of colonisation in Madagascar where the main national museums are still closed to the public.

The link between photographic dissemination and ethical-legal problems superimposed on individual and/or collective traumas––of which the photographs are material and memorial traces––has thus been woven since the beginning of their exchanges. The ‘trauma-informed approach’, suggested by Helen Marvin, seems conducive to renewing the way we look at these photographs, to questioning and even redefining the uses and norms established in the past. As the eye of the specialist is not the only one to rest on these visual memorial objects, the role of the spectator is not negligible in the appreciation and the determination of the ‘photosensitivity’: one can go as far as supposing, like Heliantha Rajaonarison, that among sensitive photographs it is possible to distinguish photographs with positive and negative sensitivity, according to their reception. Indeed, the remediation of certain images can engender conversations on the collective recognition of forgotten and invisible violence. Generally speaking, it is the balance (still far from being reached) between a duty to make these collections public (both physically and digitally), freedom of expression, and privacy that is on the horizon.

June 9th (afternoon)

The afternoon of the first day was an opportunity for a collaborative and playful workshop of photographic confrontation(s), in every sense of the word. Photographs previously selected by each specialist according to their explicit or uncertain sensitivity were divided into two batches, just as the specialists were divided into two groups to encourage exchanges. Several images were thus discussed in light of their ‘sensitivity’, to see why and how they could be judged as sensitive, and to what extent it was possible to arrive at recommendations concerning their contemporary (re)circulations. The photographs were quite diverse but provoked comparable inquisitive reactions, starting from the context of production moving towards issues of reception and exhibition: 

  1. The context of the shooting of the photograph and past uses in question. What information do we have on the context of the shooting, on the identity of the photographer and on their intentions? What uses has this photograph been put to – propaganda, documentary, anthropology, medicine…?
  2. The iconographic content and composition in question. Does the photograph directly represent violence? To what extent does the photographic technique (framing, staging) influence the sensitivity of the image? Is the language of the caption, echoing the colonial rhetoric, possibly more violent than the image itself? 
  3. Reception and exhibition in question. Who to show these photos to and where? For whom are they sensitive? What can be done so that they do not offend sensibilities? Can they be exhibited (in a museum and/or online) and if so, how?

These interventions revealed the complementary plurality of approaches as well as an undeniable divergence between the sensitivity of the archivist or historian and that of the community––as one of the participants said, ‘we cannot put an archivist behind each reader’. Indeed, the status of photographs is also largely defined by the reactions of viewers, whose primary reaction is not necessarily as informed and objective as that of a specialist. From this observation, the caution for a respectful use of the photographs towards communities was agreed upon and accompanied by a recommendation to diffuse certain images online that undermine the dignity of certain people who were photographed in a condescending way, especially when their face is visible. Insofar as photographs are multicultural objects from their creation in a shared cultural-historical context, it seems difficult to decide unilaterally on their use(s). Adopting a ‘poly-cultural’ approach, according to Julien Schuh’s proposal, could help to avoid the risk of being out of step with those who have also participated in creating these objects, sometimes at their expense. More widely, the importance of visual cultures nowadays would advise us to pay particular attention to the education of the public. Providing adequate knowledge to understand what photography is and what it implies in the past, present and future, seems indispensable.

June 10th

Before welcoming the public to attend the conferences organised in the movie theatre of the Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac during the afternoon of June 10, the specialists met once again behind closed doors. The historical management of sensitive visual documents in the era of mass digitization and the concomitant risks of misinformation; the difference between these documents and other types of sources; the methodologies to be adopted; and the apparent contradiction between emotion and the historical approach, were among the topics discussed. Three interventions brought together cognitive sciences and the consequences of the recirculation of sensitive images with the question of the public ‘in context’.

Grégoire Borst (professor of developmental psychology and educational cognitive neuroscience at the University of Paris) addressed the effects and consequences of ‘exposure to sensitive images on the brain and memorization’. The approach of the ‘photosensitivity’ by the cognitive processes showed that violent photographs tend to be memorisedmore quickly and durably, but especially that the sight of an aversive photograph is felt as a threat, involving a psychological process of defence. This is one of the reasons why photographs differ from videos, as it is easier to regain control of one’s reactivity at their sight. The colorization of photos could also be explained by neuro-psychological effects of identification, exacerbation of shock, distanciation, etc. As for the regular sight of violent or shocking images (as in video games), it is unlikely to lead to an excess of violence, but rather to a desensitisation, because it is less and less felt as threatening or shocking. Grégoire Borst also insisted on the fact that even though the spatio-temporal distance separating the photograph from its spectator can influence sensitivity, just as the reactions to violence are likely to vary according to the geographical areas and the socio-cultural groups, these reactions are cognitively identical. Photography appears as a medium provoking a specific reaction leading to an almost immediately constructed meaning. Certain collectively sensitive and contested images can, as the historian Susie Protschky reminded us, reflect an intergenerational trauma that gives a political coloration to the community’s emotional response.

This spectatorial dimension was then addressed ‘in context’ by Helihantha Rajaonarison (Musée de la photographie de Madagascar) in relation to sensitive photos from the colonial period in Madagascar. The initial idea––that the reader’s reactions make an image violent or not ––leads to an injunction to continually question the impact that photographs can have on those who view them (families, descendants but also specialists and archivists), and the extent to which they can remedy a violence that was previously hidden. In the case of Madagascar, colonial violence (including photographic violence) is to be understood through a cultural prism: certain symbolic, psychological and moral violence strategically perpetuated by Gallieni in the nineteenth century during the period of colonial pacification is represented in photographs — such as the submission of the chief Menalamba Rabozaka in front of the queen’s palace, later desecrated with its transformation into a training school for colonial administrators. Thus, the 2,500 photographs held by the Institution of Malagasy National Cartography, the personal collection of Grandidier Père & Fils, as well as private albums left by individuals preserved in the national archives, constitute traces of this violence to which the Malagasy people must have access, if only to decide for themselves whether they are positively or negatively sensitive.

Pierre Schill (Centre de Recherches Interdisciplinaires en Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Montpellier) finally evoked the potential for controversy and the unintended consequences in relation to digital recirculation and the reappropriation of sensitive images. Interested in the work of Gaston Chérau, a photographer-reporter during the Italo-Turkish War (1911), the historian analysed the recirculation of his extremely violent photographs (emaciated bodies, hanged, mutilated, etc.) in two paper works available online, and in the Getty images bank. While the contemporary politicization of photographs can be observed online in the comments made by users under the photographs published on social networks, the question of exhibiting certain photographs of the tortured bodies of foreign soldiers has arisen––not only in relation to their violence but also to their potentially dominant appropriation. Thus, the choice to display the photographs on a table, rather than on the wall, seemed a good solution to avoid erecting them as works of art while preserving their archival documentary dimension. The printed publication of Schill’s book, Réveiller l’archive d’une guerre coloniale (Revealing the Archive of a Colonial War), was likewise intended to protect these sensitive images from ‘documentary digital misuse’.

The public lectures that followed broadened several perspectives both on the sensitive photographic-historical material and on its exhibition and reception.

  • Nancy Rushohora (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam) looked at the demanding images and the memories of colonial violence in Tanzania with the example of the single portrait of sub-chief Nduna Songea Mbano. The photograph, subtitled ‘A Real Mgoni’ was taken from an anthropological perspective, but a false one, since this chief was not from this community. However, this image has been the object of countless circulations anduses in this region of Tanzania, which later became ‘a land of trauma’ because the body of the leader is buried there without its skull which has potentially been transported to Germany shortly after the killings. Representative of the evolution of forms and implications in the display and production of visual material from the colonial period to contemporary practices around this representation, this image testifies to the way in which a colonial photograph can be overturned in and through its sensitive effects.
  • Helen Mavin (Head of Photographs at IWM London) then presented the Provisional Semanticsdigitization project, which challenges the imperial gaze in IWM’s Second World War photographs. Underpinned by an ethical and collaborative methodology, both institutional and interpersonal, the project is dedicated to ensuring a transparent and critical reading of approximately 5,000 photographs. Starting from the premise that these documents are traces of Britain’s dominant presence in India, the titles and captions are scrutinised in order to discuss the socio-political context of creation and to suggest a contemporary recontextualization. The main issues at stake in this project are the continuous questioning of readings and attitudes towards the collections, as well as transparency towards the public. This is why biographies are available online alongside the photographs for researchers.
  • Susie Protschky (Associate Professor of History at Deakin University, Melbourne) communicated on ‘Late starters: The post-colonial afterlives of war photographs from Indonesia and neglected histories of colonial violence’. In support of several photographs, the historian speculates that they are often reproduced as historical evidence of the difficulty of Dutch history that few have been willing to take on. If the recent colorization of some of the images raises objections about the potential misuse of historical material, it explains to a large extent that the official apology of the responsibility of the Dutch state in these abuses occurred shortly after their publications on social networks. The current parallels made by viewers who are already aware of the extent of the colonial propaganda are distortions of the meaning that the photographs had at the time. However, they do testify to the difficulty of positioning between the object and the current national context. Thus, Susie Protschky concludes that photographs of colonial violence are ‘image-events’ circulating in a polyphonic public sphere where divergent discourses on these images develop. A constant readjustment of the interpretative framework of these photographs thus appears more than necessary.
  • The approach of Carine Peltier-Caroff (in charge of the photo library of the MQB) revolved around Helène Meissalloux’s 19th-century album of postcards. By questioning ‘the politics of naming and the ethics of showing’, Carinne Peltier-Caroff presented the process of digitalization carried out in the photographic section of the Museum and evoked the evolution of the standards of cataloguing allowing to fix codes. Questions must be asked from the context of production of the photograph to the documentary processing, including the uses and dissemination as well as the circulation, the development of links between data, the enhancement of the identities of photographed people, the revisitation of the colonial context of the collections, and the historicization of documentary practices. To resolve the ethical and legal issues encountered in relation to the management of the collections, an internal committee was set up to discuss the photographs’ iconographic content, the old titles and historical captions, as well as the conditions for putting them online.
  • ‘The most illuminating thing I have ever seen’, were Kim A. Wagner (professor at Queen Mary University of London)’s introductory words to the analysis of the photographic evidence of the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre. Starting with the observation that this massacre, among the least known in American history, is nevertheless one of its best documented, the professor wonders what a particular photograph (the image should be put online) has to say about a specific historical context. Revealing in several ways, notably because of its scenography, the image superimposes sensitive and historical layers whose significance can be discussed. At the time, it became a ‘visual war trophy’ circulating among soldiers on whose side this violence was ‘positively sensitive’ because it was victorious. In the newspapers, this photograph was used alongside other representations of wounded or dead American soldiers, in order to enhance a narrative in which the illustration of the massacre became an illustration of the white man’s burden. The image was thus implicated and (re)contextualised in various—and sometimes antagonistic—ways, as evidenced by the re-appropriation of the image by the anti-imperialist league for the purpose of colonial denunciations.

All in all, this thought-provoking workshop was an opportunity to further reflect on the ‘photosensitive’ engendered by the EyCon Project, and to lay down foundations for future collaborations between participating institutions. The questions which emerged (still far from being solved) testify to the stimulating richness of a multidisciplinary, polyphonic and polycultural topic, inviting us to renew our approaches and point of view.

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